Karen Kinder grew up on a farm surrounded by vast prairie in northeastern South Dakota, and remains inspired by the scenes of her childhood. Here, she discusses life in a small town, the flatness of the Dakotas, and why she prefers to paint cows and sheep.
“I grew up in what might be called the prairie hills, or the Coteau des Prairies, of South Dakota. Before I knew anything about art, I was always looking at the landscape, changing skies, and patterns in the fields. I live in town now—a farm was great to grow up on, but I’m not sure I could handle the isolation of the farm now. I’m still a country girl at heart, though. I love round hay bails where I can get really good contrast between the dark and the light. Or a stormy sky, where the sky is darker than the land—that unusual contrast is something that I look for. We get storms in the summer when the humidity breaks, and I like the sky during a thunderstorm.
I have to admit to being 67. When I was a child, I didn’t have the opportunity to study art at all. I actually went to a country school for the first two years of my elementary education before the school consolidated into a larger one in a different town. When I was a first grader, there were only five of us in the school, and the next year there were seven! My family was the majority of the people in the school. No wonder they consolidated it! One of my earliest memories of country school is that there was a desk where I could get paper and drawing implements after I finished my work for the day. I would keep myself busy by making sketches. But I did not have any formal art education until after high school. I went to Northern State University in Aberdeen, South Dakota. That was where my whole family went because we didn’t know there was any other place to go, and I studied art there. It was absolute heaven to try painting, printmaking, and watercolor. I took any class that I possibly could. Painting became my first love. I wanted to try everything but I discovered later in life that I needed a focus, and I chose painting.
Prairie Hills, Spring, 2017, oil on canvas, 24 x 36 inches
I still live in South Dakota. We lived in Wisconsin for a few years, but I felt claustrophobic there. It was beautiful, but the South Dakota landscape is home. For me, it’s a matter of what I see. I’m influenced by the memories of the farm that I grew up on, and sometimes I’m drawn to the landscapes that remind me of that. And I’m always drawn to sheep in a pasture, because we raised sheep and I’ve remained attached to them. I like to paint cows, too, because of the angularity of their shape.
‘Til the Cows Come Home was originally done on commission for a man who raises cattle, but this version of the painting is the one that I did for myself because I fell for the scene. He took me out to see his cows—first we saw the cows in the feedlot and then we went out to the pasture to see them. He yelled out, ‘Come, boss!’—which my dad used to say when he raised cattle—and the cows came right over the hill. It felt so much like home. Prairie Hills, Spring, is partly imagination and also based on a real place. If you go up that road, and over the hill, it’s not too far until you would turn right and get to the farm that I grew up on. We were on the western edge of the hills. The road would just flatten out completely past that hill until the Missouri River, so the hills were special.”